Sexual Violence, Children, and Living Beyond

Last night my daughter sent a screen shot of an alert message sent by her university regarding the assault of a woman on campus slightly over 2 hours after the incident. My immediate reaction was “YAY! I’m so glad her university is on top of this stuff and alerting campus to the incident.” And I am still incredibly thankful that we chose a university that takes student safety seriously and alerts the campus in a timely fashion. That is not something that seems to happen on the campus I have spent the last 20+ years of my life on (as a student and eventually an employee.) This impresses me. And my immediate response to her was to 1) use the buddy system, 2) use the evasive tactics I taught her when we were walking at night in D.C. a few years ago (scanning your environment, being alert and aware, listening for footsteps behind you, turning around periodically to be aware of who might be behind you, looking approaching men in the eyes and acknowledging their presence because either they have to kill me or leave me alone because I can identify them, walking with purpose, being prepared for an attack), and remembering her physical strength (because she is incredibly physically strong.) And I stand by all that I reminded her of because this, unfortunately, is the world that we live in, the world we have always lived in.

The evasive tactics were taught to me from a young young age: look behind you, be aware of your surroundings, look inside your car at night to make sure someone isn’t waiting for you, buddy system, etc…And it just was. It was just what I grew up with, like air, like dysfunction, like violence, like the saltwater, like any other part of myself. It just was. And I never questioned it – the circumstances that surround these lessons, the necessity of these lessons, why things were/are the way they were/are, why women had to learn to protect themselves from sexual assault but men didn’t have to learn how to not sexually assault. These thoughts never dawned on me. The evolution of social norms have shifted the ways in which we think about rape, sexual assault, and even pedophilia. These things have always been shifting. Up until very recently, children were viewed as miniature adults, a wife could not be raped by her husband, molesting one’s child was normal enough to not be something that families or people talked about. I grew up on the cusp of these norms shifting and changing, much like today’s youth. While some of the shifts leave me feeling a bit uncomfortable (positively so), the shift to better define, understand, minimize, and eradicate sexual violence is hopeful, helpful, and positive.

Generations prior to mine never spoke about sexual assault. It was always viewed as the problem of the female – regardless of age. “She was just a child.” “Well she must have been doing something provocative to entice a grown man in that way.” “Sorry you were raped but you must have dressed in a way that the animalistic male couldn’t control his urges, he had to have you right then and there.” Never mind things like age, location, serial rapists (because most are), clothing, or any other reason a woman might have brought this shit on herself. Because the man was never actually culpable for his own behavior. Women never spoke of it. If/when others found out, she risked losing her “reputation” as a good girl, as pure, as virtuous, as wholesome, and worthy. Unfortunately, these ideas continue to prevail.

I can tell so many stories from my own life experience – being a young girl and being touched, being a young teenager and being come on to by much much older men (and this continued into my 30s and many were my friend’s husbands), friends were raped and got pregnant or contracted an STD (back then it was just VD), friends who were gang raped at a party and instantly branded a whore/slut/easy, male friends who were raped – lives damaged, reputations ruined, people needing psychological help for years following the incident – some got the help, some dealt with it in their own way and moved on, others had severe problems that led them to drugs, suicide, and other self damaging behavior. When and where I grew up (it is all contextual), myself and all my peers dated men 10 years or more older than us when we were teens. It was normal. I’ve known rapists and child molesters. I remember as a pre-teen a family friend’s marriage broke up because it came out that the dad had been raping his daughter since she was little – 8 years old or something – she was 19 when she finally blew up and her family found out or couldn’t deny it any more. Part of her not saying anything might have been about protecting her younger sister for all those years. That stuck with me, hurt my heart, and made me nauseous (it still makes me nauseous). There were always news stories where women and children were put through the ringer and not believed. And sometimes I didn’t believe them. Even my own experiences – unwanted sexual advances by men old enough to be my dad – rape, or other sexual assaults – I explained away “If I wasn’t in that place for that reason, that would have never happened,” “If I was doing something safer, I would have avoided the situation I found myself in,” “If…if…if…” fully internalizing my childhood lessons on how to keep myself safe and avoid sexual assault.

So now it is a new day. I have kids. And I want them to inherit and build a different world. I am hopeful that the dam has finally cracked enough that not only the high level privileged people (Hollywood people, the president, politicians, and other rich and famous people) will be unearthed but that the community members that behave in these ways will be made known. I am hopeful that now that these cases are making headline news almost daily, those committing these crimes will wise up, get help, or do whatever the hell they need to do to not be sexual predators. But it isn’t even about “fixing” their sexual predator predilections because for most of them it probably isn’t a pathology. It is just something men have been able to get away with for so long. They felt entitled to take from other humans – female or male, no matter – as they wanted, what they wanted. Toxic masculinity has been ruining us since “the dawn of time” (well not really the dawn of time but certainly for a very long time.)

I want my son to know that a woman’s body is not there for his own pleasure or dominance. I want my daughter to know that her body is hers and hers alone, her body is not here for the service, pleasure, dominance, or ownership of anyone on this planet. I don’t want any person to feel that they have to deploy evasive tactics to avoid being sexually assaulted. I know what my experiences and lessons have taken from me and I don’t want anyone to have to excise some piece of themselves so that they can live. Because looking back, that is certainly what I had to do – excise parts of myself so that I could get on with the business of living.

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